UVA hosts panel on genetically modified organisms

Photo: ZUMA Press Photo: ZUMA Press

We’ve been eating genetically modified foods for more than 20 years, but they’re still controversial, and continue to spark national debate about food safety and ethics. On Tuesday, April 23, the UVA Food Collaborative and Department of Environmental Sciences will host a panel discussion on the topic, featuring scientists and activists on all sides of the debate around genetically engineered food to clear up a subject that’s been clouded by talking points.

“Most surveys show that people don’t understand what genetic engineering means, which is one reason manufacturers don’t want to label,” UVA Policy Internship Program Director Michael Rodemeyer said.

The event begins at 6pm in Nau Hall on Jefferson Park Avenue, and admission is free. Panelists will include Rodemeyer, Virginia Tech Fish and Wildlife Department Head Eric Hallerman, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union Jean Halloran, and UVA Environmental Science professor Manuel Lerdau.

Lerdau, who will be moderating the discussion, said he anticipates questions about labeling, but also human health, environmental impacts, and the health and safety of genetically modified animals like cattle and salmon.

“With it being Charlottesville, I expect some interesting questions about the commercialization and industrialization, and the idea of corporations supplying our food,” Lerdau said.

Altering the genetic makeup of agricultural products to increase yields and battle pests and other problems has become big business, but some environmentalists and consumer advocates say genetically modified organisms (GMOs) need to be more carefully regulated. Panelists say that Charlottesville’s growing identity as a local food hub makes it a great place to debate the issue. Specifically, Rodemeyer said he’s interested to hear audience input about the growing conversation around labeling GM food in grocery stores.

The government has refrained from mandating GMO labeling, but at least one national chain is taking it into its own hands. Whole Foods, whose local branch is co-sponsoring the panel event, recently announced its decision to require suppliers to clearly mark all products that contain genetically engineered material.

Many processed foods sold in grocery stores already contain ingredients from genetically engineered crops, Rodemeyer said, specifically corn and soybeans.

“Many people are surprised to find out we’ve been eating this for many years at this point,” he said.

These genetically altered crops have “relatively few benefits” for consumers, Rodemeyer said, and are primarily intended to make farmers’ lives easier. Agricultural biotechnology conglomerate Monsanto has been engineering seeds with a resistance to glyphosate, for example, which allows farmers to spray herbicides without damaging the crops.

“It’s easier for farmers; they really aren’t stupid,” Rodemeyer said. “A majority of large farms have moved to genetically modified crops, so clearly there must be some benefit.”

Seeds coming from biotech companies works against the notion of local food, which, he said, might not necessarily be a bad thing.

“At some point, if this technology becomes inexpensive enough, local farmers may be able to use it,” Lerdau said. “How then do we think about it?”

More info on the UVA Food Collaborative here.

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